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Northwestern Still Can’t Close

Wildcats drop another close one to No. 17 Maryland

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve done everything right so far. You brought out your best dance moves, bought her favorite drink, and avoided saying anything stupid. It’s time to ask her for her phone number and BANG, George Clooney swoops in and steals the girl.

This is how Chris Collins must feel every time he touches a basketball court this season. His Wildcats have been in nine games decided by 10 points or less and have won only two of those contests. They’ve also lost eight of their last nine games.

Of those eight losses, they’ve lost by an average of 6 points. The Wildcats held a late lead over No. 24 Illinois before Ayo Dosunmu made his presence known in the final minutes. The Wildcats then led by as much as 14 against No. 17 Maryland on Tuesday night before being outscored by 25 in the second half. Needless to say, Northwestern has had its struggles down the stretches of games, often representative of a young team that is trying to find its identity.

To be fair, the Wildcats have been making a ton of strides over the last month which is allowing them to be in these close games with really good teams. They’ve seemed to figure things out offensively as they’ve been able to find a bit more rhythm in the halfcourt.

One of the new features of the offense is having Pat Spencer take advantage of his size over opposing point guards. When Collins uses a small ball lineup of Robbie Beran and Pete Nance in the front court, the Wildcats will post up Spencer down low and then have four guys out around the arc. With Spencer’s size and strength advantage over the majority of point guards in the Big Ten, he’s been able to get a lot of easy looks near the basket. Off of this, he’s also been able to find easy looks for other guys on the perimeter, namely Miller Kopp.

Collins has also been getting more out of his young guys with Robbie Beran becoming a nice piece early in his career, scoring 17 points against Illinois last week. Boo Buie has also shown the ability to lead an offense, despite missing the previous five games due to a back issue. Jared Jones has even contributed more by playing 10+ minutes in the last five games. The most encouraging development long-term for Northwestern is the improved consistency by Miller Kopp who is quietly one of the best three-point shooters in the Big Ten while attempting more than five per game.

While Kopp has shown All-Big Ten potential, Pete Nance has regressed since the start of the conference schedule. The sophomore from Akron is settling for threes even though he’s frankly not very good at them, shooting only 28 percent from three this year. As a result of this tendency to settle, he’s only gone to the free throw line in one of the last thirteen games. He actually is second on the team in free throw percentage at nearly 82 percent, however he’s only attempted 22 free throws this year. Nance is 6’10” and more athletic and skilled than a lot of the big men in this conference. He needs to take this athleticism down low and transform his game to an inside-out approach instead of the outside-in approach that he’s currently using by taking 3.5 three points per game.

As a team, one of the reasons that the Wildcats have struggled in closing tight games is their defense. Collins has been employing a 2-3 zone to slow teams down while praying that their opponents don’t get hot from behind the arc. This strategy worked in the first half against Maryland as the Terps went 5-17 from three before the intermission. However, Northwestern’s zone simply isn’t very good as their wings are too slow to rotate, resulting in a lot of open looks for their opponents.

The Wildcats have shown the ability to hang tight with a lot of really good teams this season and the improved talent level is evident. It’s crystal clear that the lack of experience has been this team’s achilles heel so far. If the team is able to string together forty good minutes, they can beat a lot of teams in the Big Ten. Until then, Northwestern fans will continue to be disappointed when the final buzzer sounds despite the growth from young players on this team.